I like to think of myself as a creative person – we all do. There’s something satisfying about making something new: playing music, drawing a diagram, or coming up with a killer shortcut in the way you fold laundry. It doesn’t really matter the subject, we humans were born to imagine, alter, and experiment on the world around us.
Of course, we’re not creative all the time. In fact, we like to come up with systems, structures, and repeatable processes to ensure consistent results over time, and we’ve applied that thinking to the how of creativity. Don’t believe me? When’s the last time your friend, spouse, or boss asked you to “just brainstorm” with them for a minute?
A brainstorm is a structure: get a group of people to toss out whatever pops into their heads without comment or judgment. We repeat the mantra “THERE ARE NO BAD IDEAS” over and over, hoping someone will actually believe it. Question is, do brainstorms actually produce better ideas than our other structures for creative thinking?
Apparently not. A recent Newsweek article cites a study from Yale in 1958 where researchers showed that a team produces more and better ideas when they work on the problem alone rather than as a group. Why am I just learning this now!?!
The article offers some alternatives to brainstorming that should actually improve your creative output. I’ve picked out a couple to share, but they’re all worthwhile.
Follow a passion.
Rena Subotnik, a researcher with the American Psychological Association, has studied children’s progression into adult creative careers. Kids do best when they are allowed to develop deep passions and pursue them wholeheartedly—at the expense of well-roundedness. “Kids who have deep identification with a field have better discipline and handle setbacks better,” she noted. By contrast, kids given superficial exposure to many activities don’t have the same centeredness to overcome periods of difficulty.
I believe this one wholeheartedly. When I was in a career that was not suited to my natural talents and interests, I took a serious hit to not only my happiness, but also my creativity. I couldn’t even imagine what I might like to do as a career during that time. It was only through pursuing my interests and passions over a number of months that my creativity and sense of purpose returned, and I found some work that fit me like a glove.
Being well-rounded is SO overrated, anyway.
Ditch the suggestion box.
If you want to increase innovation within an organization, one of the first things to do is tear out the suggestion box, advises Isaac Getz, professor at ESCP Europe Business School in Paris. Formalized suggestion protocols, whether a box on the wall, an e-mailed form, or an internal Web site, actually stifle innovation because employees feel that their ideas go into a black hole of bureaucracy. Instead, employees need to be able to put their own ideas into practice. One of the reasons that Toyota’s manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Ky., is so successful is that it implements up to 99 percent of employees’ ideas.
The heading on this one jumped out at me precisely because I know how effective “suggestion boxes” can be at companies that actually implement the suggestions! I’m glad they acknowledged Toyota at the end of the paragraph. It’s not the shape of the box or the form of the input that matters, it’s the fact that some companies respect their employees’ ideas and creativity, and that makes employees want to be creative. If you throw away all the gifts your kid makes for you in school, you can bet they’re not going to try very hard to make you more gifts.
What do you do to unlock your creative potential? What works?